What is working: Lasting Lives and Sweeble

What I’m listening to as I type: American V – A Hundred Highways

 

Ted is dead. As is Rex and Ian and, by the time you read this, perhaps Dorothy or Kath or Eunice.

I was sitting in a half-empty pub in Newcastle Emlyn when Ted’s wife called to tell me he’d passed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. And then: “He was a real gentleman.” And I told a story about something he’d said to me, and she told another story and the conversation carried on see-sawing that way for a while, with the bar behind me hushed and listening-in.

Soon, because there was a reason Phyllis had called me on that wet August afternoon, I said:

“You should go ahead with Ted’s book. It’s almost finished and I could get it printed for Christmas. You could give it to the family as presents and it might help. It might help you to remember him as he was, before he was ill. I think Ted would want to see it finished.”

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes, what a good idea!” And there it was – the teeniest, tiniest chink of light; of something she could bear to do in a future without her soulmate.

Ted – and Ian and Rex and the others – had been one of the volunteer subjects in a pilot project I’ve been working on over the last year or so. The Lasting Lives project, which will eventually become part of my relaunched Sweeble, pairs volunteer journalists and writers with individuals to help them tell and publish their life story.

The focus is on capturing stories that would otherwise be lost so, in the pilot, myself and a couple of fellow former journalists worked with cancer patients at a local hospice. But we’re also currently looking at working with refugees and basically anyone with a life story worth capturing and saving for the future.

What I intend is to develop a set of standards, ethics and structures – plus publishing templates – to help writers work with family, neighbours, friends, and strangers to build a massive global archive of the extraordinary ways we all live our ordinary lives.

We have partnerships with local organisations: hospices, churches and public archives, and support from pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to. But this has to become bigger – a model that thousands of writers could use to capture life stories wherever they live.

So right now, as well as hopefully finishing Ted’s book, I’m in the middle of setting up the project as  a UK charity and finding people and funding to help me develop and grow it.

It’s all taking longer than I’d like because I’m trying to do it alongside my paid work and all the other stuff that fills all of our days. But we’ve so far published two books and have two more ready to go. Which is really what it’s about: helping one person at a time – and their family – to see their life in print and know their story will live after them.

Yes, I  did say print.

Ernest Saudi2

I still miss that smile

My father died of dementia. It took ten years – each one harder to bear than the last. But before his mind started to go, he’d begun writing his life story. Pages and pages of tight, handwritten text that my brother painstakingly copied into an electronic file, and I crafted into a book and had printed a few weeks before his death.

And, Oh my goodness, the difference it made!

In the book, our father, my mum’s husband, was back. In all his big, brave, joking, wanderlust glory days.

If you’ve seen someone fade away into death, you know how hard it is to replace those final images with memories of how they were. A book, written in their voice and telling the stories they used to tell, is so much more effective in rebuilding who they were than trawling through photo albums – real or Facebook ones.

The book helped my family get to a better place in remembering my father. Which is what I told Phyllis and why I knew – or maybe just believe – it would help her.

Every reporter who’s ever done a death knock knows why the family will usually talk to us. The reporter drinking tea in their front room, listening to them, writing things down, is making their story real. We’re saying: ‘People will read about this person you loved and understand why you’ll miss them.’ We want to have mattered; we want the lives of the people we love to have mattered.

I mentioned earlier about the project becoming part of Sweeble. I’m not going to go into the whole Sweeble/Bubblews shenanigans again, but for any of you missed it, Sweeble is the self-publishing start-up I started a few years back. Early incarnations failed, but I learned a massive amount about digital to print publishing and that’s going to go into reviving Sweeble as the publishing arm of the Lasting Lives charity.

I tried all sorts of publishing software during the pilot – from Blurb to Quark – and didn’t find anything that was as quick and easy to use as Sweeble had been. So, once the Lasting Lives charity is up and running, I’ll be rebuilding Sweeble as the publishing platform that Lasting Lives – and perhaps similar storytelling projects – will use.

When I met Eunice – whose book was the first one we published – she insisted no-one would be interested in her story:

“I don’t know why anyone would want to read about me. I’m just ordinary. I’ve just had an ordinary life.”

“Apart from the being held up,” her husband interjected.

“Well, yes. Apart from that time I was held up at gunpoint.” And she smiled such a wicked smile, and there – we were off.

 

What isn’t working – Sweeble and Bubblews

What I’m listening to as I type:Nebraska

 

So, this is where the story starts. I get this email from a bloke called Mike asking if I’m interested in selling my sweeble.com domain to a client he’s got. So I says “maybe” and “what are you offering?”. So he says “$500”. So I says “No”. So he comes back with “$2,000”.

At this point I google Mike, and his employers Domain Holdings and I start thinking: “Do I even want to sell it?”

I haven’t considered it before. This is sweeble we’re talking about – my sweeble. My sweeble! It isn’t just a domain, it’s who I’ve been for the past nine years.

But I’m sitting there, in a half-built house, with two jobs, no savings and my second grandchild on the way. So maybe it is time to stop with the start-up bug. Maybe it is time to sell my asset.

I tell Mike how much the domain means to me and that my interest in selling would “start at five figures”. He offers $10k – and I start to panic.

 

Will the real slim shady…

I’m going to go back a bit further. Because you need to understand why I was panicking, rather than popping corks.

Back in 2006, I was news editor at a Northern daily and I had this idea that news shouldn’t only be something written by a journalist: people should be helped to write their own stories; their own news.

Anyway, I started working on an idea for a user-generated news website: sheets of lining paper taped to the bedroom walls with scribbled ideas that made me excited to wake up every day.

Sweeble arrived one hot summer’s evening that turned to warm rain over a jug of pina colada in my Saltaire backyard.

I left newspapers and started the first Sweeble and six years of work that would leave me £100k out of pocket but really, truthfully be worth every penny. Because it is such, such a buzz starting up your own thing.

 

sweeblehp2Anyway, Sweeble 1 did ok but not great. This was 2006 – Facebook had only just opened its doors to all-comers; Twitter was newly-born and we just weren’t the social sharing folk then that we are now.

People wanted me to write their stories for them; they didn’t have the confidence to do it themselves. For a while I got around it by doing just that, and by paying expenses to volunteer writers to deliver stories. But it was like knitting with jelly – I just couldn’t get traction.

I got a dog.

Over long muddy walks I came up with a new idea. Rather than helping people to write their stories, what about helping them print them?

The lining paper was taped to the (by now different) walls and I planned out the self-publishing platform I would turn Sweeble into.

Sweeble the self-publishing platform launched in beta in 2009.

sweeblewebpage_chosenBut it proved to be an extraordinarily difficult build and four years later I had to shut it down as the tech failed further with each new browser iteration. As I wrote at the time: “Tying my tooth to a slamming door would hurt less.”

 

Please stand up…

So, back to Mike and his $10k and my mixed feelings.

I’d said five figures but $10k isn’t five figures: I’m in the UK, I think in pounds and $10k is only £6k-ish. So I tell Mike that and ask for £10k and chuck in the .net domain by way of apology for coming over all English on him.

Mike goes quiet.

A few days later, I get an email from a woman called Melanie who politely asks me what the link is between me and Bubblews’s new app called Sweeble?

Whoa, Nelly!! Where the salt fish did this come from??!!

Google, google…

It came from here

It came from here

 

Something called Bubblews was about to launch an app called Sweeble – but on the domain sweebleapp.com (bought five days before Domain Holdings first emailed me).

Bubblews co-founder Arvind Dixit was chattering about Sweeble online; there was a Twitter profile and other stuff…

DixitSweebleI confirmed with Mike that his buyer had dropped out; created a page on sweeble.com to mark out my territory; let Melanie know, and let Dixit know.

Dixit’s reply to my first dm to him basically side-stepped the issue. He may or may not have read my post; he may or may not have been behind the earlier bid to buy the domain – either way his response was friendly but.. “We came to this name [Sweeble] because it’s like Bubblews spelt backwards in a way.”

My ownership of the domains didn’t matter. My ownership of the UK trademark, and the UK Limited company didn’t matter. My very public history of creating, developing and working with the brand in relation to user-led content didn’t matter.

All that mattered was that the owners of Bubblews thought swelbbub sounded like sweeble. So bugger off me.

 

Please stand up.

And here’s where the story is today. I’ve replied to Dixit and formally asked Bubblews to stop using the name Sweeble. I gave them seven days to respond. Ten days later they haven’t and are still calling their app Sweeble.

All they needed to do was add a random letter or stick with Swelbbub! Or Swubble, or Bleeble, or Slobble!

Anyway. Calm. Let’s just put all that emotional stuff about me and Sweeble in a box for a while. Let’s just park it.

I said somewhere near the top of this post about the domain being my asset. And it is – mine to sell, use, barter or do what I like with. What on earth’s the point of intellectual property rights if, when it comes down it, you can’t actually stop anyone from just deciding to use that cool name you thought up, and used, and bought licenses for and did all the stuff you were told to do at Seedcamp?

What happens when I decide to use Sweeble for my next project? What if I launch my own Sweeble app? Or a third company does?

Someone asked me why I’m bothered – if their app takes off, my domains increase in value. Well, only to someone who might want to own it rather than just use the name with a different domain. Either way it makes it difficult for me to use it.

Someone else asked me why I don’t just sue Bubblews?

Because real life doesn’t work like that. I’ve been quoted upwards of £30k to take them to court. Even notifying the app stores if they try to launch Sweeble in the UK will cost me time and several hundred pounds in fees.

My trademark would stop them selling an app called Sweeble in the UK but wouldn’t stop them selling it on App stores in any other country, or stop them from offering it for download direct from their website.

I’m not McDonalds, realistically all I can do to try to protect my IP is to write stuff like this and make a fuss. And perhaps that’s what Bubblews’s bosses presumed.

(“Hey Joe, there’s this woman in England says she owns the name.” “Is she doing anything with it?” “Doesn’t look like it.” “Can she sue us over here?” “Doubt it.” “Forget her. Where are we with the launch budget?”)

But I am mightily pissed off. And I’m going to shout out my rage with the fury of a thousand grandmothers.

Do not ignore me: I own Sweeble.

This is my line in the sand.

Pic credit Dean Toh

Pic credit Dean Toh

 

What works – STR Skill School and YouTubing

What I’m listening to as I type: Mojave

 

There’s a lot of guff and puff being written about YouTubers at the moment.

If you took in much of the stuff in the media this year you’d think top Youtubers arrive fully-formed, like baby seahorses, with their million subscribers and six-figure earnings. But, to borrow from JPG, the formula for YouTube success is rise early, work hard, strike oil.

Actually, the “rise early” bit might need to be swapped for “stay up late working”, but the work hard bit and the striking oil bit applies. YouTubers’ “oil” being find to the right niche, meme, trend or format and then have the talent, passion and personality to  sell it.

This way to YouTube Partner Programme

This way to YouTube Partner Programme, baby

Most of the top independent YouTubers have been slogging away at it for four plus years: Smosh eight years; SB.TV seven years; TomSka six years; Rooster Teeth five years; Dude Perfect four years.  PewDiePie, currently top of the lot, is a relative Tube baby with his three-year-old channel. These guys have had time to build an audience and to get better at entertaining it.

When Steve Roberts set up his YouTube channel  STRskillschool in 2010, he was running football coaching classes six days a week to earn a living. He thought he could use YouTube to post clips of the techniques he taught his students so they could carry on practising between lessons, but he struck oil when he realised there was a bigger audience out there for his videos:

“I was looking at YouTube and saw most of the [football] stuff was pretty poor, so my idea changed to ‘how can I reach the world with this?

“I thought: I’m just the average guy, I know what everyone wants. But then I thought, if I know what the masses want, how can I utilise that?

“There were no language barriers because I didn’t talk in the videos. So I started making videos once a week or more.

“That was 2010, World Cup year, and the site starting growing really fast. I stumbled across the right format and trends.”

One of his early successes was a video of him showing how to take a free kick like Ronaldo.

“The Ronaldo free kick was quite a trending topic at the time and still is now – four years later the video is still doing well.”

Four years later, Steve is doing well too. His channel is nudging the half-million subscribers mark and he is “living comfortably for sure” from running it fulltime.

stryoutube

His channel is the biggest independent UK sports channel on YouTube. In November 2011, he was the only UK winner in the YouTube Next Trainer programme (collecting £5k worth of production equipment); in April 2012, YouTube nominated Steve as one of their rising stars and, in August that year he was picked to produce his channel from the Olympics.

YouTube have been “really supportive” of him – when I interviewed Steve, he’d just got back from a YouTube-arranged sports event linking vloggers and sponsors and a few days later he announced a big tie-in with Vauxhall, the sponsors of the England football team.

“I’m pretty fortunate in getting a lot of offers from brands but I have to be selective. It has to be right – I have to cater for my audience. I could make all the money but if my audience think I’m a sellout then I’ll lose subscribers.

“Sports brands make sense but it has to be a natural, organic thing. It could be  something to do with food and drink, or the brand might have a player they’re sponsoring and that might be an opportunity for me to work with that player.”

Working with ‘name’ players is something he wants to do in the future:

“It’s time to bring the skills videos to the next level by including the footballer: how to learn to play like Neymar with Neymar, or Zidane with Zidane – that would be my ultimate aim.”

Also on the cards is to buy in some help. Like most YouTubers, his channel is just him – his ideas, his camerawork, his editing, his deal-making. Him replying to comments, tweeting, blogging, promoting…

“If you’re the [on screen] talent you have to have a passion for the subject and you have to be knowledgeable about it, Fundamentally you’ve got to love what you’re doing.”

Loving what you’re doing is what keeps the best YouTubers working during the early years. Steve remembers coaching during the day and staying up each night answering comments and working on his channel.

When I first started it was really hard. My children were very young and I was working late at night answering comments. I chose to answer every comment, and now it’s got a little bit more difficult to do that but you’ve got to be engaging, and you’ve got to use social media.”

strlogoThings were just getting going for him when, in July 2010, he tore his cruciate ligament in his knee:

“I thought my YouTube career was over. Even at that early stage it was growing so fast and I was shattered when I was injured, I thought: ‘it’s all over’. But the subscribers kept me going, and the support I got from them.”

For Steve, passion and expertise drive the best YouTube channels and, for him, one other thing: visual awareness.

“I’ve always been a visual teacher and learner – I was good as a coach at showing information and good as a kid in quickly picking up skills I saw. I found that works on YouTube.”

What also works on YouTube is picking the right subjects for videos and giving them the right title – not just in SEO terms but to get viewers to watch.

So, his “Insane” skills videos get double the views of his technique training videos, and his training videos with player names – Neymar, Ronaldo, Beckham, do 20/30 times better than the ones without names. More of his videos now feature other footballers, rather than just him.

“I always knew that if I could utilise other skills I could improve the channel.

“Before, when I filmed some of the [football] freestylers it was in the YouTube studio, but when I filmed Andrew [Henderson], I said ‘I can’t do this in the studio’ so we just walked around London and I would say: ‘can you do something here?’ and ‘can you do something here?’ and his talent was so good it worked.

“If someone told me to pre-plan a video I don’t think I could do it, but if I turn up at a location I can tell you exactly where to shoot something and come up with ideas when I’m there.

“Then I had to find the right song to pull it all together.”

The song – and the freestyler videos, were inspired by another YouTuber: devinsupertramp. Steve’s other YouTube heroes Dude Perfect (“the biggest channel for me”)  joined him at the Olympics YouTube fest.

It’s that understanding of how to engage his audience that works for Steve: “If I’m getting bored watching a video, I know that viewers will be so I just cut out all that extra stuff.”

In this, his second World Cup year with YouTube, he’s expecting a big bump in views and subscribers:

“The next target is half-a-million subscribers – then the key one is one million and I hope I can hit that this year.”

Nike and Adidas are “being supportive” and he’s hoping the World Cup will also help him take that next step in bringing international players to his YouTube channel. Will he be going to Rio too? “Oh, I’d love to go to Rio!”

Thanks, Steve!

Thanks, Steve!

 

What did (and didn’t) work in app launching – London Cyclist

What I’m listening to as I type: Days Are Gone

Way, way back when both me and the web were younger and altogether more excited about each other, I believed the internet would deliver The Dream Job. That one you do from your laptop sitting on a hot beach drinking something cold.

I was thinking about that when I spoke with Andreas Kambanis over Skype at the weekend. If anyone’s realised the promise of the web to deliver dream lifestyle plus dream job, it’s him.

AndreasKambanisAndreas started the successful London Cyclist blog straight out of uni back in 2010. That led him to launch a string of apps, starting with Bike Doctor, and all of that led to him building his business as he travels from Vancouver to Antartica, and back again.

When we spoke, he was in sunny Buenos Aires (“My favourite place so far – it feels like Paris, with cafes on every corner”) and I was in storm-battered Tutbury.  (Three cafes, doesn’t feel anything like Paris).

He told me running his business remotely has worked just fine:

“The biggest problem has been my laptop power failing in Buenos Aires. If I’d been back London I’d have just hopped on my bike to the nearest Apple store, buy a cable and then come back.

“Here I visited three different Apple stores and none of them had the cable,  so I had to get on a boat to Uruguay to buy one!”

Aside from power fails, finding a wi-fi connection can be an issue (“Now I just use Airbnb and rent an apartment with private wi-fi”) or he makes use of his 3G stick and phone (“crucial in Peru when we were launching the London Cyclist app“).

He launched the blog as a hobby first, while working in his first job after graduating. Launching his own business was “always in the back of my mind.”

“I wanted to do my own thing. I was working for a company for a year but it was a graduate job and I found it very frustrating.”

He picked cycling as the topic for his blog because he was cycling to work every day and saw there wasn’t much online about cycling in London.

Getting the domain – londoncyclist.co.uk, was important for search traffic then: “Back in the day it was very important what domain you had – it’s less important now.”

As the blog gathered views, he started contacting other cycling sites and blogs and monetized the site with affiliate product links.

It took me about six months to be earning about $3k a month. Then my first big breakthrough was round about the time Apple brought out the iPhone 3GS. Immediately it was clear that this was a real opportunity – with the iPhone I could have everything inside an app.”

His first foray into apps was Bike Doctor, which teaches cyclists to fix their bike.

“I contacted a developer with the idea for Bike Doctor. He did the coding and I did the marketing and brought the audience. It was a 50/50 partnership.

“The app went to the top of the category for sports apps in the UK – it did really well straight out the door.”

His next app – London Cyclist, was less successful with sluggish sales.

“I hired a developer this time and spent around £2.5k making it and got that back within a few days.

“But I quickly realised that London Cyclist could only grow to a certain stage. I made the assumption that other people would want what I wanted [in a bike app]. Secondly,  I assumed that iPhone was the right format.”

His market – his London Cyclist blog followers – just weren’t that interested in the app: “If the London cyclist doesn’t download the app, whatever I did I wouldn’t move sales very far foward.”

Andreas has written here about his decision not to invest more time and money in trying to push that app forward, but  said it was a valuable lesson:

“But with each failure you learn a lot, so now I know about creating an app that’s got location data in it and I can use that for other ideas I’ve got.”

He was already traveling by the time the London Cyclist app launched, having set off on his journey in February 2013. His next app, Caveman Feast, was also created and launched as Andreas crossed continents.

Via a contact of a contact he was introduced to Abel James, who runs the very successful Fat Burning Man blog, podcast and brand based around promoting the Paleo diet.

Andreas suggested the app idea to Abel and designed and launched it. On day one of launch it had had 8,000 paid-for downloads and got into the iPhone top ten:

Top 6 app in the Apple App Store

The key had been to partner with someone who brought his market with him. Abel’s Fat Burning Man podcast gets over 500k downloads a month.

Paleo expert George Bryant of civilisedcavemancooking.com, was also involved and recommended the app to his 90k followers. By the end of launch day, the app had made back its £7k developer cost.

“Partnering with other people that have followers is key. Making an app yourself is really hit and miss. In the past we’d have had to contact all the major media outlets and find out who to talk to and chase them.”

That pattern – of working with ‘names’ to build apps, is where Andreas plans to take his business this year.

“A lot of very successful people are very busy so that’s where I come in and I manage the whole process. I take their content and four to six weeks later I deliver the app and the launch strategy.

I never launch an app and hope for the best, I always have a plan for how to get it out there.

“A digital agency in London would charge you around £100k to produce an app but you could do it for £7-8k but you need the strategy. I really think through the app and the visual mapping of the content.”

His next app is due to launch early March. It’s a 14-day juicing challenge, again working with a ‘name’ partner. Like Caveman Feast, it’s about people  building new health habits into their normal routuine.

“I’m really interested in the intersection between psychology and healthy eating so I’m interested in how we can bring thoughtful design in an app to make healthy living easier.”

This year, he expects to take someone on to manage the London Cyclist blog fulltime while he concentrates on building his app business. But does he think about where the tech is going – what he does after apps?

“Yes. Especially in the tech world everything changes and its really tough to stay ahead. I think wearable tech is next and we’re already looking at that and looking at using Google Glass for the recipe market.”

Thanks for talking, Andreas!

Thanks, Andreas!

What didn’t work: Sweeble

What I’m listening to as I type this: Dead & Born & Grown

I’ve been putting off writing this post for half a year. Tying my tooth to a slamming door would hurt less.

This post is me saying, finally and publicly, that sweeble is over. My big publishing idea; the web-tech start-up I’ve led since 2008, is kaput. And probably always was.

Even the sign I’ve been driving around for three years is looking weary:

Fading sweeble signSweeble was (and I’m pretty certain still would be) the UK’s only web to print self-publishing platform, built so anyone could create their own proper printed newsletters, magazines and booklets. Everything was done online in sweeble; from writing stories, to laying out pages, to ordering printing. More useful than Blurb. I wanted to build a WordPress for print.

Anyway, it turns out it never really worked. Worse its browser dependability meant it never really would work without being rebuilt every couple of months.

In a nutshell, I made three fatal errors.

1. I contracted the wrong developers.
2. I didn’t manage the development process forcefully enough.
3. I got distracted by new stuff instead of being a one-project entrepreneur.

There are other bits I could have done better – like getting more publicity, or focusing on one market channel at a time, but they didn’t kill sweeble, just slowed things down.

And if the funding we were offered had panned out, maybe I’d have been able to pay new developers to build me a stable version of sweeble.

Weeping woman - Corbis
However, clouds and linings and all that, there are things the sweeble experience has taught me. So here’s my advice to anyone paying someone else to build something new:

  1. Your developers are not your friends. You don’t need them to like you.
  2. Contracts can help you think through the project responsibilities but are largely useless if it goes wrong.
  3. There are reasons why the thing you want to build doesn’t already exist and one will be that it’s really difficult to build. Expect problems.
  4. Concentrate on building the simplest, sharpest one-trick pony and don’t waste time and money adding every widget you dream up.
  5. The first time your developers miss a key deadline, stop the project (and payments) until you understand why and agree next steps.
  6. The second time they miss a deadline, start looking for other developers. Just in case.
  7.  Have a cut-off point in your head (time and money) when you’d be willing to cut your losses. Don’t keep spending just because you won’t walk away from what you’ve already given.
  8. Don’t leave project management to the developer team’s manager. Get weekly reports, daily reports if things are going wrong; ask questions and talk to the developers. You’ll never wish you got less involved.
  9. It isn’t about just getting to beta release, it’s about launching a product lots of users can use without tearing their hair out – just ask MySpace.
  10. Allow at least one third of build time for field/user testing. You need to be sure the product works when the developers have gone.

wizard-of-oz

Aside from lessons in what to do differently next time (if there is one, I’m still feeling a bit raw), what else have I learned from sweeble’s demise?

This: it’s time there was a registration authority overseeing and regulating the work of software/app developers and engineers.

In the UK we’ve got gazillions of trade bodies and quangos regulating work and standards on behalf of consumers.

There’s somewhere to go if you have a complaint against the bloke who laid your carpet or fitted your double glazing. You can check whether a dentist, solicitor or company director is OK or dodgy. You can get support if the firm that sold you your holiday goes bust or you were miss-sold a pension plan. You can find a certified gas fitter, engineer or electrician.

But you have no way of knowing, other than by word-of-mouth, whether the developer/s you’re about to spend thousands, or millions, of pounds with can do what they’re promising to do.

And, no matter how much you spend on lawyers and the contract, if the developers don’t deliver, you’re pretty much buggered.

Software project failures are difficult to prove in court (is it “goods” or “services”?) You’re looking at a lengthy process involving paying court costs, solicitor and barrister – and even if you win, the developer/s can opt for bankruptcy (or Chapter 11 protection in the US) and not pay you a penny.

It’s like me taking my car to a garage and not being able to do a thing about it if the mechanic decides square wheels would work better than the round ones I wanted.

squarewheeltruckThere are trade bodies for software engineers and developers but these are member-centered – serving the interests of the developer, not his or her customer. There are no codes, standards or regulations that can tell me, the buyer, whether I can have any confidence in the supplier’s ability to deliver.

The global software industry is worth around $350bn (Lucintel). The ICT market in the UK alone is worth £140bn and software and IT services make up £58bn of that. For comparison, that’s almost three times what we spent in the UK on getting our cars fixed.

My point being that this is a big and growing industry on which other businesses are increasingly dependent for their own growth, so why is it unstandardised and unregulated?

We celebrate the scale of spend in the software industry but ignore the billions lost on sub-standard work or delayed delivery.

When the NHS scraps a £12bn software project that “never worked”, we blame the customer not the supplier. ComputerWorld’s ten biggest software failures in 2011 demonstrates even New York City and Idaho can’t get back the hundreds of millions of dollars the authorities lost on failed software projects.

We’ve known, even before Brooks’ seminal Mythical Man Month that most software projects go wrong because of poor project management but we continue to believe that can be corrected with a contract and sharing Excel reports. We need help to get what we’re paying for.

My losses were in the tens of thousands rather than the millions, but it isn’t the money that matters, it’s having to draw a line under a good idea that should have worked. That really hurts.

One of the magazine templatesRIP sweeble.

What did (and didn’t) work in ecommerce

What I’m listening to while I type: Born To Die

If the trick to web-tech entrepreneurial success is to keep trying and tweaking the same model until you get it right, then Boyd Carson is getting it right.

I spoke to him about his e-ventures and his thoughts on ecommerce ventures in particular.

As a partner at Sapphire Capital Partners, he launches bespoke investment funds for clients in property, renewables or anything else: “picking the right products for the clients to invest in.” As Founder of Sapphire Ventures, he runs his own start-ups, focusing on niche ecommerce products – most recently weselljewellery.com

It’s his fourth ecommerce-led venture. Two failed, one (Where Wise Men Fish) was a success and he sold it on. He launched We Sell Jewellery four months ago.

What I found particularly interesting in our conversation was the technique he’s developed out of this experience. Basically picking a niche product; focusing on getting to know that product and that market; and testing it first with just a couple of products and landing pages before committing.

It’s a low-cash, ultra-fast way of testing an idea on a market before you start building a beautiful website or weaving your business plan. I found myself wishing I’d spoken to him before I spent months building lovecocktails.co.uk (twice) and then finding our extensive product list was a logistical nightmare.

However, back to Boyd. He’s launched two jewellery sites and two fishing-related sites – isn’t that a bit of a bizarre mix, I asked him?

“It’s about trying to identify a niche market. Trying to identify somewhere where one can add value to the process. Everyone was rolling up hotels but no one had seriously looked at fishing lodges.”

When he replied to my Linked In appeal, he said he’d seen a lot of people getting ecommerce ventures wrong. I asked him what mistakes he thought they were making?

“Not doing enough research on the product to begin with, spending a lot of money upfront doing the website, spending all the money upfront without knowing the product.”

He added that was an issue for any retail business but was particularly the case in ecommerce:

“People assume ecommerce is easy but actually it can be harder because there’s so much competition on the web.
“It’s about knowing the product and the market – does the market want the product? And also the market may want the product, but can you get it to market with enough margin to make a profit via the internet, because the internet is so competitive?
“Someone may want to buy, for example, a gold necklace. We may assume there’s a market on the internet for gold necklaces but the competition is so fierce that the only one who survives is the one selling it the cheapest.”

Hence Boyd’s strategy of focusing on niche markets. His second jewellery site has focused on niche and custom-made jewellery.

However, the assumption would be that luxury goods, such as jewellery or exclusive fishing holidays need investment in a website and marketing – don’t customers expect a certain look and feel to the website? Boyd thinks not:

“You don’t need a big website to launch. You do test pages to test your product quite cheaply. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to test a product and get some feedback.
“For example, if I had a budget of £500 I could do an adwords campaign and spend that as a way of testing the market, rather than spending £5,000 and putting everything up there.”

Of his two ventures that failed, he felt going for a market that was too niche, too small (fishing flies?) was a reason for failure, along with not having enough cash to back the business up in the early stages, “and probably I didn’t know what I was doing”.

I asked him whether having had a business fail is a positive thing?

“Yes and no. It can be very dangerous, an entrepreneur with a small capital base can easily blow the lot and then its game over for them.”

So what advice would he give to someone planning an ecommerce startup?

“Research the product and don’t run out of cash. Have plenty of cash stashed away and don’t blow it on sales and marketing before you’ve tested your product.
“I’d also say that networking is very important because it’s a very lonely process starting a business and to talk to other people in a similar position can reassure you that you’re not failing, and they can offer you ideas and help”

And the most important thing?

“The overriding thing is focus wins. Keep focusing on what you’re doing otherwise you’ll never succeed.” 

 

Thank you, Boyd.

Thank you, Boyd.

 

What didn’t work – Geomium

What I’m listening to while I type: B.R.M.C.

Ben Dowling is one of those bright, young entrepreneur geeks that Cameron gets super-excited about  [er, that doesn’t sound quite right. Ed]

At 28, he already has one web-tech launch behind him and is currently working on at least two others. That first web-tech project, Geomium, was the one I spoke to him about – after he replied to my tweet call to tell me he’d definitely worn the t-shirt!

tweetWhat I found especially interesting talking with him was that the reasons he gave for why he felt Geomium had, ultimately, failed were ones I recognised from my own experience. In particular, the need to stay focused on your original concept, especially when you’re at that point where funders are biting. Anyway, background first.

Geomium was a social app focused on location. Developed by Ben and co-founder Michael Ferguson out of six months of conversation, prototyping and brainstorming that started in the summer of 2010. 

Mike (left) and Ben. Picture - The Guardian

The two hadn’t worked together before Geomium but had a shared interest in location and in the excitement being generated in 2010 around what location could add to social networking. Ben said:

“Initially, the  idea me and Mike had was very social, just around people and what they’re up to. But we thought, if we just have people then we need the critical mass of people and how can we get people to use it until we have that critical mass? So it was always location based – chatting but with people nearby, location was critical.”

Remember that Summer 2010 was when location was still pretty new. Foursquare had launched  at SXSW the year before – as did the rival it beat, Gowalla. But these were then US-centric and, while there was plenty of work and excitment around location, the space in mid-2010 was still pretty open.

Ben and Mike raised £33k of Angel investment, enough for them to give up their day jobs and concentrate on launching Geomium (as an iPhone app and website) and to start looking for the next stage funding that would make the difference between go and stop.

The product was getting good press and interest from VCs. But by Dec 2010, the Angel cash that had kept them working on it fulltime on had pretty much run out:

“We needed to raise more money around December 2010, Jan 2011. We were slightly unsure what to do with it [Geomium] at that point so originally decided to take on other projects and keep pushing this forward, but it’s really difficult to do it when you’re not fulltime because you get distracted and it’s not a priority.”

It wasn’t just the lack of funds that was impacting on the project at this point, but the pressures that come with the pitching process itself, particularly how the desire to reflect the VCs’ interests can add to that loss of focus.

I remember my own, increasingly desperate, pitching phase and how that hunger to get a funder on board would affect what I thought about my product, and I began reflecting what I thought the VCs wanted. Ben said this had been “a huge problem” for them too:

“We were pitching end November through December [2010] and in January we were part of Seedcamp pitching to five VCs at once. Before that you’re pitching to about one a week and getting feedback from that and so you change the pitch, and then the next week you do it again and get feedback and change it again.

“Then the next week at Seedcamp you meet different teams and they all give different feedback but there was always a common thread. By the end of it you end up with their personal passion, one will say one thing and the other the opposite – although it’s not relevant to us they just say it to everyone.

“But afterwards you realise a side point, not their main point, is a common thread that they all made and that’s the important bit.”

The “important bit” in Geomium’s case was to stay focused:

“They [the Seedcamp VCs] said by bolting more and more onto the product we might think we were making it more compelling but we were actually confusing users.”

For Ben and Mike, the space Geomium was competing in had filled up since they started 12 months earlier. Their response to that had been to add more features to their product:

“The initial idea was to focus on people but then it was “how to we do more? I know, let’s add events and deals.” There were lots of different apps coming onto the market that offered each of those parts but we decided to add them all: “Let’s add this, let’s add this. Oh, someone else is doing that; let’s add that too.” So you end up doing a mediocre job of lots of things rather than focusing on one thing and being the best at that.”

The pitches failed. The guys didn’t raise the extra funds they needed to progress Geomium. Ben summarised what they felt had gone wrong:

“When we first started it was obvious it [location] was going to be an interesting area but 12 months later, when we were looking to raise money, the space had really filled up. It had become increasingly competitive and a lot of the investors wanted to see some serious traction. We had good traction but not at the levels they liked to see and the reasons for that are because we did too many things.”

Ben started working on other projects as lead developer. Some apps, including BusMapper, but  mostly working for another promising start-up – Lightbox, an Android photo app  (has $1.2m VC investment and is currently in Series A fundraising round). Mike returned to the US and is now working on another location-based project – appthegame, with new partners.

Geomium is still running as an events listing website at www.geomium.com (the events route being one the guys had started to focus on towards the end), but Ben “pulled the plug” on the original website and mobile app at the start of December 2011.

But, as Ben explains himself on his blog coderholic: “Failure isn’t anywhere near as bad as you think it might be. Even when everything goes wrong, it’s actually OK.” (Incidentally, this BusinessWeek feature makes the point that ‘failing is actually OK’ in multi-million-dollar businesses too).

So, if Ben was mentoring newbie start-ups at Seedcamp 2012, what would advice would he give them?

“I’d say focus on one thing and do that really well instead of doing too many things. I think it’s a really, really common thing startups get wrong is to think the one thing we’ve found isn’t good enough, so let’s add more stuff. But really you need to focus on the one thing.”